Hilaire Belloc bought King's Land (in Shipley, Sussex), 5 acres and a working windmill for £1000 in 1907 and it was his home for the rest of his life. Belloc loved Sussex as few other writers have loved her: he lived there for most of his 83 years, he tramped the length and breadth of the county, slept under her hedgerows, drank in her inns, sailed her coast and her rivers and wrote several incomparable books about her. "He does not die that can bequeath Some influence to the land he knows, Or dares, persistent, interwreath Love permanent with the wild hedgerows; He does not die, but still remains Substantiate with his darling plains."

Search This Blog

Tuesday 28 January 2014

'The Haunted House'...

I recently asked a friend of mine to review 'The Haunted House' by Belloc (illustrated by Chesterton in a, seemingly, supreme act of kindness). What prompted me was an e-mail from an Italian who is, currently, translating the work into Italian. My friend has views on the matter and they are forcefully expressed. This small piece is an anonymous contribution, although a few of you might be able to put two and two together.

''You recently asked my opinion on Belloc's 'The Haunted House'

I'm afraid this is it. I finished the book last night. This morning I give you my unrehearsed reaction to it. Off the top of my head just as if you'd asked me in the pub...

If my first acquaintance with Belloc had been this book, and if it had been represented to me as typical of him, I would never, ever have bothered to read another one. I hated the experience. I have been bored by Belloc's novelistic pot-boilers, but NEVER so adversely affected and depressed by any as I was by this one.

It's the story of a deception practised to win back what is supposed to be an unjustly-appropriated inheritance, a country house: but as Belloc makes clear, the house in question only came into the hands of its "true" owners by means of an earlier injustice, the expropriation of monastic lands ... its "true" owner, a member of the (implicitly protestant) rural squirearchy - who thus ultimately has only in truth a flawed right to the place - has by incompetence allowed the place to get into the hands of a mere relation by marriage, a pushy, vulgar and manipulative woman (a well-known type in other novels by Belloc and GKC) who plans to make money by selling it, and ignores the possibly stronger right to possession of the son of the now-deceased owner ... Although the man is fairly decent - well, he's the best unfortunately that poor England has to offer these days, a hollowed-out sham of a traditional landowner - rather like a better-educated Emanuel Burden, honest according to his imperfect lights...

The first two-thirds of the book are entirely devoid of any action and merely lay out this scenario, introducing a gallery of grotesques designed to make us feel keenly the corruption of English political and academic life - an American and an unbelievable vulgar coster-monger (with a dreadful wife) who've bought their way into the House of Lords, plus another Lord who lectures in "psychology" at Oxford, and who is unbelievably dim and stupid and has a cruelly caricatured speech difficulty (Belloc makes too much fun of these people, going on about their habits until the whole thing becomes not just tedious but aggressively boring - and the phonetic representation of "cockney" - rather like Shaw's over-indulgence in it in 'Major Barbara' - becomes unbearable.) What's more, the Lord who lectures in "psychology" is two sorts of impostor - he doesn't know his own subject (which Belloc seems to equate with ESP or 'psychic research') AND is secretly a gossip-columnist for a cheap newspaper). There are other repulsive minor crook characters - money-lenders, newspaper owners, all (naturally) being disguised Jews who've changed their names.

There are other little digs at Kipling - not prompted by any necessity, and a suggestion that the occult writer FWH Myers was really Meyer - I mean, FWHM WAS a funny bunny, although some of his stuff is really interesting - and obviously he wasn't Belloc's cup of tea (an Italian probably wouldn't notice these points and 90% of English readers wouldn't either, BUT they seem to me to add to the general ill-humour that the book exudes).

This of course gives Belloc a ready excuse for a repetitive parading of his own well-known grouses, resentments and obsessions about money, ancestry, the stupidity of Oxford Dons, etc. He seems to have had a thing about barrow-boys which is quite noticeable elsewhere in his output - was this something brought on by the success of the music-hall star Albert Chevalier and his famous "coster" songs or had the Belloc family suffered from a "low character" in some way (well, there were some money scandals, earlier and later in life and the Oxford resentment is well-known...)?...

WHAT an Italian reader would make of all this I can't imagine. The reader is being continually button-holed and harangued as if by a convinced and obsessive conspiracy-theorist: it's tedious to one who knows a bit about the Englsih scene, and more tedious to one who's read a few other Belloc novels. I personally think that once you've encountered the Botts in Richmal Crompton's WILLIAM book you've got enough satire on parvenus to last you a lifetime - and with more variation and fun. I always prefer satire to be good-humoured: too much rancour is, I feel, self-defeating. And Belloc sneers from a position of impregnable Moral Superiority and Knowingness ALL the time: although there are stylistic genuflections ( viz, "the cat's pyjamas") to PG Wodehouse's manner he doesn't share The Master's enviably sunny disposition...

The methods used to get the house out of the hands of the man and his son are vaguely reminiscent of the con-tricks and financial wizardry flayed and displayed in 'The Mercy of Allah'.The young heir impersonates a ghost to put off the potential buyer of the house: inspired by the sparky but amoral pretty daughter of the American peer he fakes an ancestral ghost and frightens the elderly coster-monger peer into serious illness. All bets are off, the affair gets into the papers, the intruded owner is demoralised...and the cruel methods used to get the house out of the hands of the new female owner are just as cruel (and recounted with JUST the same semi-sadistic delight) as those Kipling devised for some of his horrible short stories of revenge (where casual bullying gives way to actual hard persecution such as, e.g., "The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat" and "Dayspring Mishandled"). Read them. You will see what I mean. They are clever but horrible.

The absolute dearth of pleasant or upright characters to act as touchstones of honesty reminds me of other early modernistic presentations of a grey unmoral world, Stevenson's 'The Wrecker' and Gissing's 'New Grub Street'. Incidentally, there's something to be said about Technology being the driver of 'The Wrecker' (the telephone and the speed of modern communication are a main plot-motors there) descriptions of San Francisco and even I think Hawaii centre on the miles and miles of telephone cables festooning every street...Belloc is not averse to using telephones, big cars and even cameras as important features here. If I were writing a novel, I wouldn't. I am always AMAZED by this medievalist's being able to drive a car... but not having electric light or a phone. I can't drive, and have a kind of moral horror of it. But that side of things is a hobby-horse of my own, between me and the shrinks.''...

SO the "happy ending" is brought about by deception (and presumably ANOTHER American woman becomes part of the English rural scene). WHY was Belloc apparently so touchy about that? Her style of colloquialism can NEVER have been heard from the lips of ANY genuine American lady (I think I take Scott Fitzgerald as a good realistic reporter here). And we're back to the possibility that the house REALLY belongs to the monks ...

Although I've never seen GKC' s illustrations to the story, I think I can imagine them accurately enough. I think those for 'But soft We are Observed' (which images I once studied pretty carefully) could be pasted in without too many discrepancies.

Quite honestly, I wish I'd never read the blasted book.

And IMHO, the idea that the book should be recommended to an Italian readership is as much a wrong-headed non-starter as the notion expressed to me some years ago by that rather odd slightly aggressive elderly lady (?WHO?) who was on the old Chesterton Society committee - that GKC' s novel "The Return of Don Quixote" could be adapted as a fun musical for schoolchildren - YE GODS!!!!''

Monday 20 January 2014

Welcome to Belloconia...


I have just added some links to quite a number of Belloc's essays (below the book section). It is a veritable treasure trove of Belloconia.

Belloc has something to say about most things and most of what he had to say is well worth reading. Even if you disagree with his 'Philosophy' of Life you will not be able to get around the fact that he was one of the great prose writers of the 20th Century. For that matter, he wrote so much about so many things a lucky dip into the Belloc essay pot would normally (eventually!) come up trumps with something which is, at least, mildly appetising.

So, if you are not interested in mowing a field you might well have visited Carcasonne and be pleased to be reminded of the experience. Roman Roads in Picardy may not be a travel guide priority but, perhaps, a visit to Delft might just lift the spirits:

''Nevertheless, I say that in this excellent city, though it is outside Eden, you may, when the wind is in the right quarter, receive in distant and rare appeals the scent and air of Paradise; the soul is filled.''

Sunday 12 January 2014

Wassailing in Sussex...

Wassailing refers to a traditional ceremony that involves singing and drinking the health of apple trees in the hope that they might better thrive. The purpose of wassailing is to awaken the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits. It is normally done during January. The South Down Folk Singers will be wassailing in Worthing this year and everyone is welcome to join them.

Old Apple tree, old apple tree;
We've come to wassail thee;
To bear and to bow apples enow;
Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full;
Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs.